Technological Testing Grounds: Border tech is experimenting with people’s lives

A new report from the Refugee Law Laboratory and EDRi (European Digital Rights) investigates how new technologies are increasingly being used at the border and to manage migration. Technological Testing Grounds is based on over 40 conversations with refugees and people on the move and shows that much of this innovation occurs without adequate governance mechanisms and does not account for the very real impacts on people’s rights and lives.

The investigation supplements an upcoming report on xenophobic discrimination and emerging digital technologies for immigration enforcement by the Ms. Tendayi Achiume, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Both reports find that many countries are exploring technological experiments for the purposes of border enforcement, decision-making, and data mining. From drones patrolling the Mediterranean to Big Data projects predicting people’s movement to automated decision-making in immigration applications, these innovations are justified as necessary to bolster border enforcement. However, these high risk technological experiments exacerbate systemic racism and discrimination and can lead to significant harm within an already discretionary system.

The report’s findings are brought to life with original photography by the Refugee Law Lab’s Filmmaker-in-Residence, Kenya-Jade Pinto

Read the report here:

In addition to these Refugee Law Lab publications, check out the publications by Refugee Law Lab staff:

Recent Publications by Refugee Law Lab Director Sean Rehaag:

“Experimenting with Credibility in Refugee Adjudication: Gaydar” (2020) 9:1 Canadian Journal of Human Rights 1 (with Hilary Evans Cameron).

This article explores sexual minority refugee claim credibility assessments through an experimental study involving simulated refugee determinations. The experiment focuses on whether a claimant’s appearance affects the simulated adjudicator’s credibility determinations and written reasons provided to justify those determinations.

“Judicial Review of Refugee Determinations (II): Revisiting the Luck of the Draw” (2019) 45:1 Queen’s Law Journal 1.

This article updates an earlier empirical study of decision-making in the refugee law context in Canada’s Federal Court. The initial study found that outcomes in Federal Court applications for judicial review of refugee determinations depended all too often on the luck of the draw – on which judge decided the case. Since the initial study was released, the Federal Court has adopted measures to address variations in grant rates across judges. Drawing on data collected from over 33,000 online Federal Court dockets from 2008 to 2016, the article examines whether those measures have been successful and what further reforms should be pursued.

“Whose travel is ‘essential’ during coronavirus: Hockey players or asylum-seekers?” (2020) in The Conversation (Canada) (17 June 2020).

This opinion piece examines Canadian border control policies during the COVID-19 pandemic. The piece notes that the Canadian government has allowed some people to cross the Canada US border, including professional sports players, but not others, including asylum seekers. As such, the piece raises the question: whose travel is “essential” during a pandemic?

Recent Publications by Refugee Law Lab Associate Director Petra Molnar:

“Surveillance Won’t Stop the Coronavirus” (2020) in The New York Times (15 April 2020) (co-authored with Diego Naranjo).

This opinion piece focuses on the far-reaching impacts of surveillance technologies weaponized against migrant communities, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. As governments move toward bio surveillance to contain the spread of the pandemic, we are seeing an increase in tracking, automated drones and other types of technologies that purport to help manage migration. If previous use of technology is any indication, refugees and people crossing borders will be disproportionately targeted.

“Bots at the Gate: A Human Rights Analysis of Automated Decision-Making in Canada’s Immigration and Refugee System” (2018) International Human Rights Program and The Citizen Lab, University of Toronto (co-authored with Lex Gill).

This report, co-authored with lawyer and technology expert Lex Gill, examined the internationally protected human rights at play when automated decision-making is introduced into immigration and refugee applications. Using Canada as a case study, this report was one of the first in the world to highlight these issues and sparked policy conversations in Canada and internationally, including at the United Nations.

“Technology on the Margins: AI and global migration management from a human rights perspective” (2019) 8 Cambridge International Law Journal  305

Technology is neither inherently democratic nor rights enhancing. The human rights impacts of new technologies are particularly important to consider in humanitarian and forced migration contexts. This paper argues that an international human rights law framework is useful for codifying and recognizing potential harms, because technology and its development is global and transnational. More oversight and issue-specific accountability mechanisms are needed to safeguard fundamental rights of migrants, such as freedom from discrimination, privacy rights and procedural justice safeguards (including the right to a fair decision-maker and the rights of appeal).